Until recently, Mennonites have been highly sceptical about debt and have sought to keep it at arm's length. Ironically, they have become accommodated to it at a time when government indebtedness is at an all-time high, underdeveloped countries are mired in debt, and rampant consumer debt is such that the average North American family is but weeks away from personal bankruptcy.
The early Anabaptists had little to say about debt per se, though they avoided charging interest (in accordance with their understanding of Deuteronomy 23:19 and Psalms 15:5), paid it only reluctantly, and frowned upon any occupation that required charging it. Early writings counselled against being indebted to the world. Debt was dangerous. The word itself bad pejorative theological overtones ("Forgive us our debts. . .").
Scripture did not prohibit borrowing but seemed to caution against it. There were warnings against pledging surety (Proverbs 17:18), but lending to someone in need was encouraged (Psalms 112:5). More practically, Mennonites saw debt as an enslaving entanglement that could lead to dilemmas such as foreclosure and the use of litigation for collection. It was better to owe no one anything.
One could speculate about psychological dimensions as well. Debt naturally creates guilt for a people who have not - always readily accepted gifts, mercy, or grace. When Russian Mennonite immigrants to Canada in the early 20th century received rail passage on credit from the Canadian Pacific Railway, many were haunted for years by the burden of their Reiseschuld (travel debt) until they could finally pay it off. Some, however, felt little responsibility to repay their travel debt, causing church leaders great concern and embarrassment. This uncharacteristic lapse among the normally meticulous Mennonites was a major economic issue facing Canadian Mennonites of the period.
Today Mennonites have little if any hesitation about going into debt. They no longer feel as constrained as they once did by the homespun prohibition, "If you can't afford it, don't buy it." A Mennonite without some indebtedness (farm, business, or student loan, home mortgage, outstanding credit card balance, etc.) is a rarity. Increasing numbers of Mennonites also feel comfortable in the profession of banking.
In some Mennonite circles credit is seen as a potentially useful tool as it was by the 14th-century English church leaders who established the first credit unions to provide remedial loans to the poor. In recent years Mennonite and other Christian aid to the poor in underdeveloped countries often has taken the form of credit to peasant farmers or struggling small business people (development work).
Credit unions have become an accepted fixture of some Mennonite communities (Manitoba and Ontario, for example). By 1987, when the first Mennonite credit union retreat was held, the number of Mennonite credit unions in North America numbered seven, some of which had thousands of members and assets in excess of $50 million. Credit unions see themselves in the context of the economics of caring and mutual aid, but to many observers and clients they are seen as a more benevolent form of banking, a place to deposit money, carry out financial transactions, and, when necessary or convenient, incur debt.
The prevailing Mennonite sentiment seems to be that debt is an economic reality of contemporary society that can profitably be used by believers if done so carefully. Christians should not be over whelmed or seduced by it. Being unable to repay obligations still meets with strong disapproval in most Mennonite circles.
Durnbaugh, Donald F., ed. Every Need Supplied: Mutual Aid and Christian Community in the Free Churches, 1525-1675. Philadelphia: Temple U. Press, 1974.
Fretz, J. Winfield. "Brotherhood and the Economic Ethic of the Anabaptists." Recovery (1959): 194-201.
Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Waterloo, Ontario, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 5, p. 219. All rights reserved. For information on ordering the encyclopedia visit the Herald Press website.
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MLA style: Kroeker, Wally. "Debts." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1990. Web. 22 May 2013. http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/D36ME.html.
APA style: Kroeker, Wally. (1990). Debts. Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 22 May 2013, from http://www.gameo.org/encyclopedia/contents/D36ME.html.